Operation Tomodachi: Support, Compassion, Commitment

November 15, 2011

Navy Admiral Patrick M. Walsh
, Commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet

Wilbur Ross
, Chairman & CEO, WL Ross & Co., LLC; Chairman, Japan Society

On November 15, 2011, Admiral Patrick Walsh, Commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, spoke at Japan Society about the role of U.S. forces in supporting humanitarian assistance and disaster relief efforts after the Tohoku earthquake.

The Maritime Domain
Admiral Walsh set the context by noting that there is a growing realization in the Asia-Pacific region of how important the maritime domain is.

As author Robert Kaplan points out in his recent book Monsoon, a simple fact about the Mercator projection serves as a starting point for understanding this, the admiral said.

Though standard for most of our maps, the Mercator projection gives a distorted picture of the world. It depicts the land-to-sea ratio as 70/30, whereas the reality is exactly the opposite: 70 percent of the Earth's surface is covered by water, and only 30 percent is land.

The Pacific Fleet itself sails in an area extending from the California coastline to the India-Pakistan border, representing over 100 million square miles of sea and 15 time zones.

History, Strategy & the Asia-Pacific Region

In 1946, there were 51 countries in the community of nations; today, there are 193, in fact 196 if Kosovo, Taiwan, and Vatican City are included. During this period, GDP growth has brought gains in wealth and longevity to many parts of the world. We've had "an explosion in growth of sovereignty, national identity, in a very compressed period of time," Admiral Walsh said.

The 19th-century strategist Halford Mackinder held that in order for a country to exert its influence beyond its own region, whether in economic, political, diplomatic or military terms, it has to have control of, or a sustained presence in, a "strategic pivot." For Mackinder, the locus of strategic advantage was land-based: the Eurasian plain. Today, in Admiral Walsh's view, the critical strategic pivot is the South China Sea, where 70,000 container ships representing some $5 trillion of economic activity pass through the Straits of Malacca every year.

The Asia-Pacific region includes the world's largest populations, its largest economies, and its largest militaries. Its countries are keenly aware of how essential their navies are in protecting their sovereign interests and their interests at sea.

"As I look around at my counterparts in the region, there are no navies that are withdrawing" or drawing down, he commented.

Surrounding the Asia-Pacific region is a geological and climatological "ring of fire" that gives rise to frequent natural disasters, including typhoons, earthquakes, tsunamis and erupting volcanoes. In times of disaster, the admiral said, "people are in need, and when people are in need there's an expectation that governments are postured and positioned to be responsive, because if we're not, then either we're disconnected or we have a tin ear or we're not listening to our real purpose in life, which is to serve."

Operation Tomodachi
The Tohoku earthquake and tsunami produced a state of devastation so complex that it could not be addressed using the vertical, hierarchical command-and-control approach that is typical for military activities. The U.S. military's joint support force, dubbed Operation Tomodachi, meaning "Operation Friend," was therefore organized horizontally. Some 90 members of the Pacific Fleet's headquarters flew in from Hawaii and joined U.S. Forces Japan units to work side by side with the Japanese Self-Defense Force. The humanitarian and disaster relief effort required coordination with the Japanese ministries involved, some 50 NGOs, the U.S. ambassador, the U.S. Agency for International Development team, and, ultimately, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The 100,000 Japanese Self-Defense Force members on the ground tackled the immediate concerns of the region's residents, including searching for the missing and conducting rituals and protocols when remains were found. American military personnel played a supporting role, providing water and supplies, clearing roads and ports, and putting together technology to test air, water and food for nuclear contamination.

One big challenge was "to have the technical community arrive at a consensus view" on what was happening at the reactor and its impact on the atmosphere, the water supply and the food supply, the admiral said. Another was to prepare for the impact of the aftershocks, which for many residents "became more emotionally debilitating than the event itself, because it went on and it went on and it went on."

Emblematic of the collaboration and coordination between Japanese and American forces, Admiral Walsh said, was the image of a U.S. Marine pushing a broom, cleaning out a school, while his counterparts in the Japanese Self-Defense Force searched for the remains of those lost. "The real story here is in the power of the idea—the idea of tomodachi," which "represents who we are, what our relationship is, and what it could be."


Q&A with the audience followed:

What are your thoughts on the ongoing economic challenges presented by the crisis?

"We’re dealing with an invisible sort of enemy here in the form of radiation," Admiral Walsh replied. "We have to recognize that it can be very, very intimidating to know it’s out there, but to not know what it is and whether or not it’s lethal... or it’s a long-term problem we’re going to have to deal with."

"And so there may be lingering questions beyond the shores of Japan about the ability of Japan to deal with the contamination. And I think at least one aspect of this is giving the world community a sense of confidence that they can do business in Japan."

Can you describe some specifics on the involvement of Navy vessels in Operation Tomodachi?

The 7th Fleet commander was in port in Singapore when the earthquake happened, the admiral said. He didn't wait for orders, but got his ship underway at once and positioned it off the coast of Honshu. Some 20 to 24 American ships were involved all told, including the Ronald Reagan Strike Group, which was positioned off the coast of northeast Japan.

As Ronald Reagan traveled through the radioactive plume released from Fukushima, the crew used standard radiation-protection practices; follow-up testing showed that these precautions were uniformly successful in protecting personnel, the admiral included, from being contaminated.

Is there a sense that the people of Okinawa have perhaps reevaluated having U.S. military on hand because of Operation Tomodachi?

This is a question he'd have to refer to the U.S. Ambassador, Admiral Walsh said. However, "to presume that there is a new timetable with trying to resolve the crisis, I wouldn’t represent that. I wouldn’t suggest it. And it would be disingenuous to those who have differing points of view."

Ambassador Roos, who was in the audience, agreed, saying, "We think we’re making progress with regard to the Futenma situation, but I would not say there is either a direct or indirect tie to March 11."

The admiral added, "I think we go out of our way to make sure that there is no perceived tie in the minds of people in Japan. Wouldn't that be awful that we come to help and yet there is a quid pro quo that we expect? That's not us."

There were differences between radiation reports published by the NRC and by Japanese authorities. How did you deal with this?

The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology website keeps track of 80 different sensor locations around Fukushima, and shows both radiation levels and trends in the data. The Japanese reporting system is "actually very powerful," the admiral said.

"The [U.S.] Department of Energy worked with the Self-Defense Force to put sensors in place where we could identify at least gamma radiation," which is lethal and requires immediate action. There were no big gamma releases, "but we had to be prepared for that."

"The more likely scenario was living with elevated levels of radiation" and increased cancer risks in certain areas. "Some families want to act on that information. But the point is that in terms of now abandoning homes, taking shelter and running for their lives, that’s not the scenario."

Seeing trend-line data helped people decide when they could return. In fact, having this kind of data available "is something that we ought to consider in our own country as well."

Moving forward, what's going to be the biggest challenge the U.S. will face in keeping the lines of communication open in the South China Sea?

Demand on resources grows as global populations live longer and benefit from a higher standard of living, which promotes "a sense of resource nationalism" in the region, Admiral Walsh explained. So when a Chinese fishing trawler bumps into vessels from the Japanese Self-Defense Coast Guard, it's "something more than just an isolated local incident." Vietnam has already purchased submarines, and Indonesia and others are looking to follow suit.

To "de-tension the region," what's called for is a discussion that is practical rather than abstract or rhetorical. President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton have made the importance of freedom of navigation very clear, and the creation of Economic Exclusion Zones would have "real economic consequences."

How was the name Operation Tomodachi chosen?

The diversity of the United States is mirrored in the diversity of the 7th Fleet's members, Admiral Walsh said. Thus there are Navy commanders who were born in India, Cambodia, Vietnam and South Korea who are "in charge of ships returning to where they were born."

"You can imagine in your mind’s eye that there is someone who is on the staff in Hawaii who has a very warm sense and a very real sense" of what is needed to help the people of Japan. "So, instead of picking a name that really focused on the execution of military responsibilities, they picked tomodachi."

—Katherine Hyde

Topics:  Business, Policy

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